Saturday, April 18, 2015

Sophia Isberg Master Carver of Motala Sweden

Helena (Lena) Sophia “Jungfru” Isberg: Master Carver of Motala[i]


Original article published in Pipes & Tobacco, fall 2005 by Ben Rapaport
Additional information and illustrations by Daniel Beck


Self Portrait by Sophia Isberg
Courtesy Motala Museum

Wood has been an essential building material of Nordic countries, instrumental in many of their arts and crafts, including pipes. Relative to England, France, Germany, Italy, and even the United States, Scandinavia does not have an historically lengthy briar pipe-making legacy. Moreover, not much had been chronicled on this side of the Pond about that region’s pipe carvers, but all that’s recently changed. Nowadays, just about every pipe smoker would agree that some truly outstanding pipe makers reside on the Scandinavian Peninsula.

A Swedish birch carved pipe bowl by S.Isberg dated 1856


Some may be familiar with the work of a few Norwegians, among them Bård Hansen and G. Larsen. Mention Björn (Bengtsson), Bo Nordh, or the newest briar wunderkind, Love Geiger, and some avid pipe aficionado might chime in: “those Swedes make really great smoking pipes!” Just say Jess Chonowitsch, Bjarne (Nielsen), or the late W. Ø. “Øle” Larsen, or any of a number of Danish master craftsmen to a group of American pipe devotees, and broad smiles immediately appear. To fanatic Danophiles, Anne-Julie is not just the widow of pipe legend, Poul Rasmussen, and a respected painter; she also has a reputation for crafting handsome briars. Equally celebrated in the same circles are Nanna Ivarsson (grand-daughter of the legendary Sixten Ivarsson) and Manduela Riger-Kusk. Another, much-less-known female carver was Else Larsen who passed away in 1997 and, according to Jakob Groth, she was Denmark’s first female pipe-maker. From information that Søren Refbjerg Rasmussen recently provided to the author, Else began as a house cleaner for Øle Larsen in 1963, and showed a degree of talent for making pipes. She eventually opened “Else’s Pipe Repair Shop” behind Øle’s establishment, and began making some pipes, but she was more noted for her repairs and for fabricating those stylistic Larsen horn and amber pipe tampers. Anne-Julie, Nanna Ivarsson, Manduela and Else Larsen are anomalies in a trade dominated by men, but they are not the only women pipe carvers from Scandinavia who have ever had a retinue of admirers! This brief account is proof.
 

A Swedish birch carved pipe bowl by S.Isberg dated 1856

Female pipe carvers are not a 20th century phenomenon. Two in the mid- to late 19th century, Carla Nielsen (prob. Danish) and Maddalena Bianchi of Venice, have received slight mention in the annals of pipe history, but the record is absent significant details about them, such as the mediums in which they worked, or how productive they were. In my recollection of legendary pipe masters, the lives of only two 19th century carvers have been profiled in a book: a brief account about a French meerschaum artisan, Charles Harnisch of France, and a biography cum retrospective catalog of a contemporary, Sophia Isberg of Sweden, the central character of this account.[ii]

A Swedish birch carved pipe bowl by S.Isberg dated 1856

 Much more is known about Isberg than Nielsen or Bianchi, but one would not think so by poring through a very popular book on Swedish wood crafts and craftsmen. Looking Through Carving and Whittling: The Swedish Style (1998), authored by Gert Ljungberg and Inger A. Son-Ljungberg, offers a perspective into the distinctively traditional look of Scandinavian woodcraft—bowls, clogs, tableware, letter openers, manglers (to iron sheets), and other household objects—with commentary about some prominent Swedish artisans, but nary a word about Sophia Isberg! However, more than 100 years ago, she was the tobacco ‘talk of the town’ on the Scandinavian Peninsula. Idolized by some of her countrymen, lionized by others as one of the finest 19th century Swedish artisans, she is known in the United States to less than a handful of pipe collectors. 

A Swedish birch carved pipe bowl by S.Isberg dated 1856


According to her biography, Jungfru Isberg – och hennes verk (Jungfru Isberg and her Work), Helena (Lena) Sophia “Jungfru” Isberg was born in 1819, the daughter of a wood carver, Johan, and his wife, Magdalena. When she was 11, she and her older brother, Jacob, both self-taught, began whittling, making toys for their own amusement. By age 19, she was expert enough to apply her talents to carving urns, tableware, goblets, clocks, napkin rings, tobacco boxes, snuffboxes…and pipes. 


Napoleon is often found in her carvings...Courtesy Motala Museum


Courtesy Motala Museum


Courtesy Motala Museum


Using some rudimentary tools, many of which she, her brother, or her father may have hand-forged,

Isbergs' tools. Courtesy Motala Museum


she ventured into executing more elaborate, ornate, and intricate objects for the home


Courtesy Motala Museum

 
Courtesy Motala Museum

and the smoker.


Courtesy Motala Museum

In 1847, Isberg was still relatively unknown in her rural hometown of Motala, but a certain Otto Mörner took one of her pipes to a wood carver’s convention in Stockholm, and it received a bronze medal (third prize) for its “unusual artistic talent.” 


 Sofia Isberg,Pipe sculptured in birch , shaft of ivory, silver mount , lid, sculptured lions, height 13 cm. Auctioned 12/17/2014 by Stockhoms Auktionsverk

Rather than pursue formal art classes at the invitation of Professor Carl Gustaf Qvarnström of Sweden’s Academy of Fine Arts, she remained in Motala, content to carve in the confines of her living room. Shy, reserved, perhaps even a bit eccentric, Isberg not only declined Qvarnström’s financial support, when King Karl XV desired to meet her, she is quoted as having retorted: “If he has something to say, he has to come here.” 


Karl XV, King of Sweden and Norway from 1859 until 1872


Louise of the Netherlands was Queen consort of Sweden and Norway from 1859 until her untimely death in 1871. Quite an introvert compared to her flamboyant husband, she was well versed in music, history and the arts. 

Louise of the Netherlands

There is no doubt Louise was aware of Isberg's talent and temperament and would have naturally been attracted by such a kindred spirit. Some of the most elaborate works by Isberg indeed were commissioned by the royal family and the court.


This is the Royal Urn given to the Motola Museum by King Gustav VI Adolf in 1953: King Karl XV had it at Tullgams castle. Courtesy Motala Museum


It was unusual for Sophia to sign her work. This one is... It is likely that King Karl XV ordered the urn to be signed. The signature can be found in the banner.


Inspired by the bronze medal, Isberg believed that her work might also be well received outside Sweden, so she ventured out frequently to compete at various international expositions on the Continent. 

She exhibited two relief picture carvings at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, one depicting Sweden’s King Gustavus II Adolphus (1594-1632) leading his army into Germany, and one depicting Napoleon’s victory train, identified as “Napoleon’s Triumph.” The sketches for those two carvings were given to her by Professor Carl Palmstedt

 
Illustration of Gustav II Adolf. Courtesy of Motala Museum


She would use the same motif in many other carvings of pipes, urns and jars during her whole life.


Courtesy of Motala Museum


It is around 1855 that one can see a marked difference in Isberg's carvings. She went from low reliefs to higher reliefs on urns and pipes. Tree and figures began to be almost free standing sculptures. 

Courtesy Motala Museum


Courtesy Motala Museum

 In 1860 she carved an urn representing the meeting of KIng Karl XV with the Danish King Fredrik VII in the town of Ljunbyhed.

 
Isberg got her inspiration from the Illustrated Newspaper the same year.


She received a medal at London’s International Exhibition in 1862, and first prize at an exhibition in Malmö in 1865 for her skill and diligent workmanship, at last getting recognition as one of the finest wood carvers of the period. 


For those steeped in the history of the briar pipe, it is no surprise that this wood was not her medium; after all, la bruyère’s popularity was in its infancy in the mid-19th century. She worked in maple to execute small pipes, and in birch for the larger, more dramatic expressions. Although her pipes may not have passed today’s taste test, they certainly passed the tactility test for their splendor in the deeply-incised motifs she created from a kaleidoscope of models and images she found in fables, mythology, the Bible, history, magazines, newspapers, and the everyday life in Motala to which she was exposed: gods, sovereigns, lovers, knights, war heroes, the venerated in the Bible, and hunts were her typical milieu. She particularly enjoyed making pipes exhibiting figural heads and busts, and one of her favorites was the aforementioned Napoleon whose bust she often carved. In her finished birch and maple pipes one can easily distinguish the beauty and dexterity of her carving, and her significant talent for detail—investing hundreds of hours to create masterpieces—that justly warrant prominence and attention from anyone who admires excellence in the execution of wood objects by a deft hand.

Sofia Isberg's pipe, sculptured in birch, stem with hunting paraphernalia, the transition between the shaft and the pipe bowl is a deer holding globe between the horns , bowl of his pipe in the form of container, top noble family Blomstedt Coat of Arms, stamped NW, Uppsala 1851 ( Nils Wendelius active 1824-57 ), on the cover sculpted lions , height 24 cm. Auctioned on 12/10/2013 by Stockholms Auktionsverk. Courtesy Johan Hedborg Collection.

There is no formal record of how many pipes Isberg carved in her lifetime, or what was her best or largest pipe, but we are fortunate that Dr. Sarunas “Sharkey” Peckus, an American with an extensive antique pipe collection, owns one pipe, purchased in Toronto, and one pipe bowl, purchased in Seattle, that showcase her dexterity. The curator of the Motala Museum has authenticated both as the distinctive work of Isberg.


The shape of this 5”-high Isberg pipe bowl in richly patinated curly birch is markedly different than that in Illustration 1; it closely approximates one of the Austro-Hungarian wood bowl shapes of that day, the Kalmasch or the Ragoczy. And in comparison to the first, the panorama is less dramatic, less violent. The bas-relief carving depicts four feral hounds attacking a stately elk and taking it to ground. Notice the aforementioned, distinctive Isberg touch, a birch wind cover set into a silver bezel, and a lion sejant surmounted. (In her biography, yet another pipe bowl with a carved hunt scene and a lion sejant wind cover is illustrated.)  The silver hallmarks underneath the wind cover are illegible, so the date of fabrication is unknown. Photography by Dr. Sarunas and Mr. Darius Peckus

It is a rare opportunity when an Isberg pipe comes to market, but word rapidly circulated in late fall 2004 that a relatively plain birch pipe bowl with silver wind cover and shank collar, long cherry wood-flexible horsehair stem and horn mouthpiece would be offered at an auction hosted by A. F. Hellman, Uppsala, Sweden on November 20, 2004. The catalog estimate for this simple pipe was 2,000 Swedish kroner [SEK] (approx. $275), and the winning bid climbed to 9,000 SEK, or about $1,200, suggesting that Dr. Peckus is not the lone admirer of Isberg’s workmanship in wood.

This 26”-long, commemorative, maple Gesteckpfeife (German term for a wood pipe in parts [bowl, reservoir, stem, and mouthpiece]) has an ornately carved 6”-high bowl exhibiting on the upper half a deeply-incised, in-the-round, pitched battle scene in which three flags of Sweden are prominent, and an acanthus-leaf décor on the lower half. The reservoir below the bowl is formed as a high-relief-carved spread eagle clutching a wild hare in its talons. And the entire length of the two-part stem is carved in acanthus-leaf décor matching that on the bowl, with alternating embellishment of grape leaves and floral buds. A silver retaining chain connects the reservoir to the stem. The wind cover may typify one of Isberg’s signature trademarks, a high-relief-carved finial of a lion sejant, and the wind cover’s silver mount strikes are three crowns (the Swedish national mark), “S.P.U.” (a maker’s mark),  and “A5” (which equates to 1855 in the Swedish dating code). (This same battle image is replicated on an Isberg tobacco jar in the Motala Museum, Sweden.) Photography by Dr. Sarunas and Mr. Darius Peckus

She died in 1875, almost as poor at that age as when she had entered life 56 years earlier.


However, years after her death, her work continued to receive worldwide praise. This urn was sent to the World Fair in Brussels in 1888. The urn has three main motifs , Erik the Holy when he refused to receive tax, Odin's arrival to Sweden and the last scene in the Bravala battle. The original was traced back to a lithography by an artist named Hugo Hamilton.


Isberg's last Masterpiece to be seen on the international scene. In the round carving, fully three dimensional with depth and perspective.

The Motala Museum, situated in the castle of Charlottenborg, Sweden, two kilometers east of the city of Motala, chose to immortalize her. 




In 1930, the Museum published a retrospective catalog of her work in which the following statement is found: “Many stand in amazement and wonderment before her finesse with the treatment of wood.” Today, the upper floor of this museum contains some of her most important artifacts, exquisitely executed examples of her diligence and attention to detail. 







 



Few pipe makers of equivalent talent then or now are famous enough to have this level of posterity or their craft center-stage for perpetuity. Let the record show that not only was Helena (Lena) Sophia “Jungfru” Isberg one of the very first 19th century female pipe carvers, but also that she plied her trade at a time when Scandinavian pipe making was not as mature an industry as that of other European countries to its south and west. Many famous and not-so-famous people have had their special moments, but they were most often only moments. As history now relates, Isberg is probably the only European pipe carver, to date, whose reputation lives on by virtue of the printed word—a biography, better, a portfolio of her life’s work, but limited to only those who read Swedish—and a permanent museum display for the entire world to see.


 

A Swedish 19th century carved wooden pipe bowl by S. Isberg . Height 10,5 cm




A Swedish 19th century carved wooden pipe bowl by S. Isberg . Height 10,5 cm


Special thanks to Johan Hedborg for his constructive comments and corrections.





[i] This story evolved over several years and from communications with a number of people who are publicly credited with the germination of the idea to write it. It started with the book about Sophia Isberg, that Jan Andersson of Tyringe, Sweden, a life-long pipe smoker and editor of Rökringar, the journal of the Svenska Pipklubben, had gifted me in the late 1990s.  Sometime in 2003, I told Bruce Benjamin, an American antique pipe collector, about this book, and he obtained a copy in early 2004 from his daughter in Sweden. While attending the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club convention in May 2004, Bruce visited his friend, Dr. “Sharkey” Peckus, took pictures of these two pipes, and sent them to his daughter. She showed them to the  Motala Museum’s curator who certified their provenance to Isberg. Without all these interrelated events, this story could not have be told.


[ii] B. Clergeot, Charles Harnisch, Artisan Pipier, 1845-1895 (Musée du Tabac, Ville de Bergerac, 1985), and Jungfrau Isberg – och hennes verk (Motala Musei—och Hembygdsförening, 1993), a lushly illustrated, 36-page hardcover book that can be ordered from the Motala Museum’s Web site.

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